TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has delighted Beijing and Washington with his efforts to pivot from confrontation to peacemaking with the authoritarian government in China, a rival in an unresolved Chinese civil war.
That may not be enough for the voters of Taiwan.
Ma faces an unexpectedly tough bid for re-election Saturday. His main challenger, Tsai Ing-wen, has run a smart and effective campaign, exploiting complaints by middle and working class Taiwanese that the economic benefits of Ma's China embrace have largely passed them by.
Opinion surveys published a week ago — the last permitted under Taiwanese law — showed Ma clinging to a 3-4 point lead, despite Tsai's never having won an election for public office in Taiwan. That's far from the 17-point victory Ma achieved in 2008, when Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party was reeling from corruption scandals involving Taiwan's outgoing president.
For decades one of Asia's economic miracles and now a key center for high-tech development, Taiwan has turned in a mixed performance under Ma. Unemployment has dipped in the past two years after reaching a high of 6.16 percent in 2009 — stratospheric by local standards — and 2011 growth came in, preliminarily, at a respectable 4.5 percent. But housing prices in urban areas have skyrocketed and the income gap has widened.
Many question whether Ma has gone too far in linking the island's fate with the China colossus to the west, in exchange for economic benefits.
"The economy has benefited the big corporations while holding back the working and middle classes," said Taipei merchant Tsai Kun-yin, 66. "The ruling party has colluded with the big corporations to make money in real estate but it's forced lots of people, especially young people, out of the market."
Tsai has hammered away at these pocketbook issues and depicted Ma as beholden to Taiwan's China-friendly big business community, which almost universally backs him.
Taiwan split from China amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing continues to regard it as part of its territory. It seeks to bring Taiwan back to the fold — mostly by threats and bullying, but more recently by trying to show the island's 23 million people the benefits of closer ties with its juggernaut economy.
Like Ma, Tsai too has promised to continue to engage China economically, but at a slower pace than the president. But she has also criticized him for eroding Taiwanese sovereignty in his pursuit of closer ties with Beijing — a theme that plays well with her party's base.
"This election is about a vote on Ma's four years of governance, about whether people have benefited from Ma government policies," said political scientist Francis Kan of Taipei's National Chengchi University. "The China engagement policy has provided a key to open a door for peace ... and people will declare whether or not they have benefited."
Complicating Ma's task is a third-party candidate, James Soong, a former heavyweight in Ma's Nationalist Party. While he has no chance of winning, political analysts believe that he could spoil things for Ma, drawing more from his voting base than from Tsai's. Legislative elections at the same time are also likely to shrink Ma's majority in the legislature, while letting him retain control.
Ma has made moving Taiwan's high-tech economy ever closer to China's lucrative markets the centerpiece of his administration. He has sanctioned big upsurges in direct flights, given the green light to accelerated Chinese tourist visits to Taiwan and opened the door to Chinese investment. A landmark trade deal last year resulted in an 8 percent increase in Taiwan's exports to the mainland, ratcheting them up to $124 billion or 40 percent of the Taiwanese total.
The new, more placid atmosphere has pleased the United States, which remains Taiwan's most important security partner. The last thing Washington wants is additional strains with Beijing as it tries to repair the economy, wind down costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and re-engage with economically vibrant East Asia.
Despite the opposition of most Taiwanese to China's claims on their political loyalty, many see economic ties with the mainland as such a plus that Tsai has muted the DPP's traditional position favoring independence, repudiating the policies of her former boss and party head, Chen Shui-bian. As president, Chen had infuriated China and alienated the United States with his hardline pro-independence views.
"Many Taiwanese have felt the benefits of the peace brought on by improved relations with the mainland and the future opportunities that peace holds for them," said Kan, the political scientist.
For all their political differences, the 61-year-old Ma and 55-year-old Tsai often come off as temperamentally similar, remote intellectuals. Both were foreign educated — he at Harvard Law School and she at the London School of Economics — and come from well-connected families. Ma's father was a senior official in the Nationalist Party, while Tsai is the scion of wealthy Taiwanese landowners in the island's south.
In recent weeks, Tsai has cast off her wonkish side and started to connect with ordinary voters — not only dyed-in-the-wool DPP partisans, but also the unaffiliated moderates who will ultimately decide the election. Her rallies have seemed more energetic, and some private polling data suggests she is making particular inroads with urban dwellers under the age of 40, most concerned with high property prices.
"The people with money are getting more and the people without money are getting less," said Wu Yueh-wu, 39, who runs a small jewelry shop in Taipei. "Young people are in a situation where they can't afford to buy homes of their own."